Chris Paul, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay and Reggie Evans all have a different definition for physicality.
LOS ANGELES -- There was a moment toward the end of the first quarter in Game 2 between the Grizzlies and the Clippers when Memphis walked the ball upcourt after getting beat in transition. As Mike Conley tried to deliver the ball to Rudy Gay on the wing, Zach Randolph barreled into Blake Griffin just inside the arc.
The contact caught Griffin off guard, and he stumbled backward like a fighter who’d been hit. Just as Griffin regained his balance -- now below the foul line -- Randolph delivered another elbow to Griffin’s torso, knocking the Clippers’ brawny power forward further into the paint.
Back up at the top of the court, Bobby Simmons denied that intended pass to Gay. Conley was fortunate to recover the ball and, when he did, he saw Randolph primed in the paint. Easy entry pass to Randolph, who took a single power dribble and muscled the ball up off the glass with his left for an easy layup. After staggering early, Memphis trailed by only five points.
The Grizzlies ultimately won the game and much of their success was attributed to pushing the Clippers around at will.
A playoff series develops certain storylines, and a dominant one to emerge from the Grizzlies-Clippers matchup has been physicality -- who is manhandling whom beneath the glass, in the paint and any other place on the floor where there's contact between opponents, which seems to be any arbitrary point between the east bank of the Mississippi River and the coastline of the Pacific Ocean.
Designated brute Reggie Evans said the Clippers got “punked” in his team's Game 2 loss in Memphis. Back in Los Angeles prior to Game 3, the Clippers posted a quote from commentator Charles Barkley on the locker room wall:
Other than Kenyon Martin, [the Clippers] are not a physical team … If I was coaching the Grizzlies, I would say "We are not letting them dunk." They want to get the "play of the day." They don’t want to be rough and tumble.
When the Clippers eked out a win in Game 3 by dodging a bullet at the buzzer, they claimed victory in the physical sweepstakes. "Overall, I thought we did a good job of being the more aggressive team," Griffin said. "That was kind of the plan, to be the aggressive team from the jump. That’s [the Grizzlies’] whole M.O., being aggressive, their whole ‘Grit ‘n’ Grind’ thing."
On the Memphis side, Rudy Gay was despondent after the game. Gay is a genial guy, but about as milquetoast as they come when it comes to declarative statements about team and individual performance. Yet he could hardly contain his frustration at the podium following Game 3.
"We're supposed to have a physical team," Gay said. "They took that away from us today. They pushed us. They did all the things that we usually do to teams. ... They really imposed their will on us tonight."
Evans might have struck the most balanced note after the game, one that acknowledged fewer instances like the one Griffin suffered back in Memphis, but stopped short of wholesale praise.
"We did pretty good, but we can still improve," Evans said. "We still have a little more work. We don't want to get too comfortable, too relaxed and too happy with the results. Even though we won, found a way to get a win, we still have to go back to the drawing board and see what we did wrong."
Evans understands that victory in the manhandling event tends to be assigned retroactively.
If Gay's last-second shot fell through the net, would he have bristled the way he did about the Clippers' seizing the mantle of schoolyard bully? Would the Clippers have been peppered with questions about whether their inability to control the trenches would be their undoing in this series?
"Physicality" is an ambiguous term whose definition changes player to player. When Evans was asked about it, he cited the offensive rebounding numbers. To Paul after Game 2, physicality meant Memphis' willingness to tug, pull and push him wherever and whenever he tried to navigate in the half court. Randolph's moments come when he and Griffin are wrestling for position.
And for Gay, it's about luring the opposing defense into illegal contact by being aggressive with the ball. For the Clippers, physicality doesn’t come without a price. They might have done a better job of holding their ground in Game 3, but they also let Gay and Randolph combine for 23 free throw attempts. There's smart physical and silly physical, and the Clippers simply can't foul Memphis the way they did on Saturday afternoon. Setting aside Memphis’ Game 1 exploits from the perimeter, the Grizzlies aren’t going to win this series from the perimeter. But they have big men who can stroke it from the foul line, and Gay has the capacity to turn a mediocre shooting performance into a charity drive, as he did in Game 3.
The Clippers can take down the bulletin-board material for Game 4. They did an acceptable job on the glass and Paul was more elusive to the Grizzlies behind the pick-and-roll. But there's still work to be done. Cutting down on the aforementioned fouls. Inspiring Griffin to leverage his big frame and plant a stake on the left block. Staying active on the glass. Fighting over those high picks for Conley.
The physical battle is usually portrayed as a bout, but it's just as much a game of wits. The Clippers worked harder in Game 3 -- and good for them. To take a decisive edge in Game 4, they now have to work smarter.